19 edycja

The Sun Has Not Risen Yet: Tsunami and Fukushima.

Haruki Murakami, the most popular Japanese writer of today, when collecting a literary award in Barcelona in June 2011, devoted his entire thanksgiving speech to the tragedy in Tōhoku. He was speaking with both the Spanish and the Japanese listeners in mind, knowing that his statement, picked up by international media, will be difficult to ignore in Japan. The Japanese will, as they have always done, deal with the damage caused by the tsunami, no matter how serious the destruction following a natural disaster is. It will be more difficult to deal with Fukushima, though. After all, living in the shadow of Hiroshima as well as bearing the brunt of earthquakes, why did Japan opt for nuclear energy? Simply because profit took precedence over safety. Anyone daring to have a different opinion is labelled an “unrealistic dreamer”. Murakami claims that this choice provides evidence for the decline of moral standards in Japan. It is going to be much more difficult to deal with this than to rebuild the damaged roads and buildings. Murakami wishes the Japanese to become the “unrealistic dreamers” and, having rejected nuclear energy, to be reborn as a nation discovering new environmental-friendly sources of energy.

For most of the Japanese the first moment of reflection on the way of life they have been living so far as well as on their consumerist needs and their satiation, came a few months after the catastrophe, when in the summer, there existed a real threat of an electric energy shortage. Obviously, the discussion on sustainable development has been going on for some time in many countries. Everyone knows that the amount of resources is limited and still people consume more and more while mindlessly wasting the resources in the process. The thing is that, while the blackest scenarios talk about the near or more distant future, the Japanese have actually had to deal with the problem. It would be difficult to count all the articles and debates that took place in the media, where the point of economic growth was discussed as so was the difference between growth and development, the model of capitalism which constantly creates new needs and cravings but also if satisfying these actually does make people happy.

These debates were not free from references to the past, often to the distant and much idealised one, for example, to the Edo times, when the Japanese managed to create a self-sustainable model of life in perfect harmony with nature. Human needs were satisfied, natural resources were systematically renewed and all the waste would undergo a total re-utilisation process. There was no unnecessary waste or encumbering the future generations with a burden, the starkest example of which is nuclear waste. Also, elderly Japanese get very nostalgic about their youth – the after-war period, life without modern gadgets, the times when people consumed less, when Tokyo was not as illuminated by the glow of neon lights as it is today and yet, the joy of life was much deeper and the social bonds were stronger. Philosopher Hisatake Kato recalls the masterpieces of a film director Yasujirō Ōzu, who depicted the life of the Japanese middle class in the after-war period. Relatives of a doctor in “Tokyo Story” do not own an air-conditioning system or a TV set, but are they less happy as a result? Kato believes the opposite is the case. “Japanese income has risen five times, but there is no data saying that we have become five times happier”1. Hosokawa, the former Japanese prime minister, proposes the following solution: “Perhaps it’s high time we faced the fact that we have lived too luxuriously. We can draw the conclusion and decide to come back to a more modest lifestyle, not such a luxurious one. Every year one thinks about buying a new car, the same applies to a TV set – everyone wants the latest model. It’s nonsense”2

Besides, talking about it openly is the best way to cut a discussion short. Straight away you will hear someone important from the business world or a prominent politician asking: “So now we should live without electricity, like in Africa?” Such arguments usually shut people’s mouth, although recently they have become somewhat less effective. A reasonable person understands that the past was not so idyllic, that progress and the drive for profit are the impetus for human creativity and the inventions do make life easier, which in turn lasts now longer than before. At some point in history, Japan joined the race that had begun with the industrial revolution, and in a relatively short time has achieved astonishing results. This process, however, has created a number of problems along the way, both social and environmental; people know it and so their sense of weariness and uncertainty about future is justified. The Japanese ask whether the lack of economic growth will allow them to maintain their high standard of living. The assumption that its decline will correspond with human happiness is naïve to say the least. On the other hand, it is hard to unanimously abandon the current model. The race is on and the competition never sleeps: most of the Indians or the Chinese would like to have Japanese dilemmas. Despite the rapid economic growth, the majority of people in these countries still live in poverty. It is therefore necessary to develop further?

Realising that technical progress and the natural resources are limited may have practical consequences. The harmony between the development and the environment, conscious consumerism and adjusting the growth model to the demographic structure, and thus the development of – as it is called here – “Senior Friendly Culture” opens opportunities for Japan after the recent tragedy. You cannot go back to the past, but you can use elements of the native tradition based on balanced, sustainable proportions and unique aesthetics.

It is too early to judge whether anything new will result from the debate or if it is a form of therapy, a temporary escape from the harsh reality, after which everyone will have to come back to the existing rules as there is nothing else to return to.

What remains real, however, is the rebuilding from the damage caused by the tsunami and the question of the future of nuclear energy in Japan. No decisions have been made yet, but there are projects to make Tōhoku a region relying entirely on renewable resources and, as far as it is possible, to build a small power plant in every town or village. That would mean a real revolution on the energy market, as the former operators would lose their monopoly.

Whatever the fate of this project, it is widely known that the share of renewable energy in the overall balance will grow. If it was possible to make use of the technical talent and culture of the Japanese, if some funds were discovered – even a part of the subsidies so far allotted for the nuclear energy project – positive effects could come very soon. Initially, the costs of producing such energy would probably be relatively higher, but this is not the only factor that counts. The opening for a new way of life, positive, grass-roots initiative to shake off the lethargy may after all turn out as profitable. A parliamentary bill guaranteeing a fixed price of 42 yen per 1 kilowatt from solar panels over 10 years has already been passed in Japan. Anyone who installs an appropriate device can sell energy thus produced. Realtors and property developers advertise that the resale of the surplus power from rooftop solar panels may partially cover the cost of mortgage instalments. It certainly is too early to speak of a breakthrough, but the circle of people who are not necessarily associated with ecology but who nevertheless do opt for this kind of energy is steadily growing. In the summer of 2012, a popular ultra right-wing comic book author, Yoshinori Kobayashi, who previously justified the Japanese military aggression, came with a call to his fans: “Shouldn’t we immediately abandon nuclear energy which is connected with the destruction of the nation and lead the world towards a revolution in power supply?”3. There is no better proof that technology by nature is neither bad nor good by nature; the only question is who uses it and how.

Is the current political class capable of practising the Japanese notion of nagare no yomi (“understanding the zeitgeist”)? Fukushima has opened, as they call it here, pandora bokksu. The failure of power, the omnipotence of the caste of bureaucrats and business oligarchs were known about for a long time. But perhaps this is the first time that the public had the opportunity to experience an almost tangible proof of that. The exceptional situation, the rupture of the official media statement and the omnipresence of the Internet meant that each day the news on the corruption in the establishment circles and the powerlessness of the politicians began to be circulated widely. Haruki Murakami said in Barcelona that the Japanese are a patient nation, but now their rage is on the way. He was right – so many demonstrations as in the course of the two years after the disaster, Japan has not seen for several decades. After all, Fukushima was not only a failure of the power plant’s equipment and infrastructure. The same applied to Chernobyl. One has to be cautious when putting these two cases together, however, when reading the memoirs of Mikhail Gorbachev after Chernobyl, where he speaks of the absence of a system of control, alienation, arrogance and creating the myth of the infallibility of scientists, it is hard not to have a sense of déjà vu: “For 30 years you, the scientists, have made us believe that nuclear power is completely safe, you wanted to be treated like the holy cows and now this tragedy”4 – he said at a meeting of the Politburo. Japan is not a dictatorship state, but still both examples show what the results of the petrification of the system of government and depriving it of social control may be. Chernobyl accelerated the disintegration of the Soviet Empire, and how will the Japanese system change after the Fukushima?

The political context of both catastrophes drew the attention of Masaru Satō, a former Japanese diplomat in Moscow, today a widely known publicist. His interpretation of the recent tragedy is based on the analysis of the whole post-war social order in Japan. He argues that the order was founded upon three pillars: individualism, the supremacy of life, or the taboo of death, and rationalism. Each of these assumptions is, according to Satō, incorrect and inconsistent with the essence of Japanese culture of which the best proof is the Tōhoku disaster. Rationality fell under the onslaught of the forces of nature, death on a large scale has proved to be something real, while saving others requires sacrifice of one’s own life, of which the volunteers from Fukushima are a great example. Such an attitude is the antithesis of selfishness and it should thus designate the direction that Japan should head for. Until then it will be stuck in a rut. Satō’s views probably situate him in the line with the former Tokyo mayor Ishihara, as well as all those who are searching for the lost Japanese spirit. Sato sees, however, the chances for a Japanese rebirth, according to what Emperor Akihito stated in a speech delivered after the catastrophe. Akihito expresses a respect for the dedication of the military, police and fire fighters to save others, which he sees as an attempt to awaken Yamato-damashi – the Japanese spirit. The Emperor also uses old word ooshi – heroism, which Satō understands as a return to the language used by the Meiji Emperor, Akihito’s great- grandfather.

I am not sure if this is a correct interpretation of the Emperor’s intentions. However, both the opinions of the Japanese essayist and the person of the monarch offer a good opportunity to take into consideration the cultural aspect of the disaster. There was a surprisingly large number of voices that it is the Japanese culture and mentality of the Japanese that are to be blamed for the Fukushima disaster. Even Haruki Murakami, who is so critical of the establishment for favouring the economic efficiency over the safety of people, goes a step further in the analysis of the causes of the disaster: “At the same time it was us, the Japanese, who have allowed for this distorted system to function until today. Maybe we should actually accuse ourselves as we have been turning a blind eye to such behaviour for such a long time. It is closely connected to our sense of morals and professional standards.”5. Therefore, everyone is responsible. In a similar tone, though much more bluntly, speaks another writer, Kenzaburo Ōe: “We need to thoroughly re-think Japanese mentality so as to understand what happened in Fukushima. The post-war generation put the responsibility for their country in the hands of experts and technocrats, also when politics is taken into account. (…) The government, parliament and entrepreneurial circles – they all believed that the development of science would solve our problems including suffering, and then it turns out that we are not able to control the power plant failure and efficiently tackle its consequences. It is high time we, as a society, rejected the mentality of washing one’s hands of something.” Commenting on the protests across the country, he adds: “Anonymous masses of young people want to be heard, I hope that they will change the mentality of the post-war Japanese society, that their actions will form a new national character”6.

Ōe is an outstanding writer and a Nobel Prize winner, but also a well-known peace activist of long standing, renowned for his unapologetically strong political profile. Someone who is awarded literary prizes by the post-war technocratic Japan, but not taken too seriously whenever he expresses his hard-hitting opinions on political issues. Although it sounds scary, a call for change in the national character is far from any sort of cultural engineering. In other words, Ōe describes the Japanese Disneyland and the absence of civil society therein, as he wants the democracy to expand in Japan.

Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a chairman of the parliamentary committee established to explain the disaster at Fukushima, reaches out for the deeper cultural deposits. This is how he sees the genesis of the tragedy: “To find its fundamental reasons one should focus on the essential elements of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience, our reluctance to challenge those who are higher in the hierarchy, our diligent adherence to guidelines, our tendency to keep within groups (sectarianism) and our tendency to isolate ourselves (isolationism)”. This is not an alienated voice. In major periodicals, also the conservative ones, one can still read allegations of conformism of the Japanese and their inability to plan for a rainy day. During the war, the Japanese army did not practice retreat manoeuvres, and in the post-war period, in a similar manner, Fukushima evacuation plans were not designed. Just like it was back then, also now Japan lacks strong leadership while the struggle for power goes on among the mutually inimical top echelons of power.

Some of these allegations are certainly correct, although it is difficult to limit them only to Japan. Accumulation of similar opinions is part of the natural process of the post-tragedy catharsis, and also, despite everything, evidence for the freedom of speech. As a result of the country’s insular location and over 200 years of isolation, the elements of cultural diversity are likely to be more strongly present in the public debate in Japan than anywhere else. Most of the allegations come down to indicate the absence of symmetry: in Japan, the development of the environment and the social organisation, in which modern technology operates, did not keep up with the gigantic material progress. Culture as an argument in the discussion suggests indeed a cut-and-dried explanation of the phenomena, but on the other hand it opens the way for manipulation, allowing to make excuse for even impure intentions: Asian dictators once explained the lack of democracy in their countries, blaming it on their culture, on the “Asian values​​”. Blaming the culture for Fukushima was not widely appreciated, especially abroad. If that were the case, then no one would be personally responsible. In addition, the situation is almost hopeless: undoubtedly, the culture and the national character are resistant to change. Most probably the problem boils down to the definition of culture. Culture understood in a more static way, as something more inherent, as something that brings the community together, undergoes very slow changes. These features exist and in the case of Japan, obedience is surely one of them – it can be clearly seen when one compares the difference between the behaviour of Japanese and Chinese tourists abroad: the former dutifully follow the guide and limit themselves to the minimal area, while the latter walk without a pattern and are talkative, almost chaotic. But on board a plane, after several hours of flight, when the attendant is encouraging people to exercise, it is mainly the Japanese who stretch their limbs. It is obedience, but not coercion; it manifests the confidence that the given message is true and beneficial to people. Naturally, there is room for misconduct here as well. Former British Ambassador to Japan and a friend of this country, Hugh Cortazzi says that rather than cultivate traditional values ​​such as loyalty and corporate obedience the Japanese should acquire more such features as honesty and a sense of justice.

This might be the case. Still, one should bear in mind that in the case of Fukushima we witnessed systemic negligence. In such an environment human behaviours are in no way unique or culturally distinct; they become transparent. In the system devoid of quality control, where the door to corruption is wide open, the behaviour of the Japanese is easy to explain. It would be similar with any other nation. It is difficult to change cultural habits at a flick of a finger; it is much easier to pass a new law and to curb the web of corruption-engendering interrelations, which stems from poor management. This should be the order of things.

1 Hisatake Kato, Shizenshugi o tazunete, “Seikatsu to Kankyō”, March 2012, p. 44.

2 Morihiro Hosokawa, 3:11 arata o bunmei wo tsukure, “Asahi Shinbun”, April 13th, 2011.

3 Quoted after Linda Sieg, Nationalist Japan manga author joins anti-nuclear fight, “The Asahi Shinbun”, August 25th, 2013.

4 Quoted after Masaru Sato, Kan seiken no cherunobirika, “Chuokoron”, June 2011, pp. 78-89.

5 See http://senrinomichi.com/?p=2728.

6 Quoted after Hiroshi Matsubara, Ōe, It’s time for Japanese to change their mentality, “The Asahi Shinbun”, July 12th, 2012.


Piotr Bernardyn

The Sun Has Not Risen Yet: Tsunami and Fukushima.

Wydawnictwo Helion, Gliwice 2014.